Bread, Circuses and Snake Oil

Abraham Lincoln summed it up pretty well: you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not (so he said and so we hope) all of the people all of the time.

From itinerant peddlers selling snake oil to today’s more sophisticated propagandists selling political nostrums, there have always been hucksters preying on our very human yearning for simple solutions for what ails us.

Drink this, and your brain tumor will vanish/your belly fat will disappear. Believe that, and you will no longer feel disoriented/diminished. Vote for him (rarely if ever her) and he’ll make (your preferred version of) America great again.

A recent column in the New York Times put a name to those who pander to that all-too- human yearning: charlatan.

It’s impossible to characterize a historical period before it’s over, but I think one plausible name for our era will be the Age of the Charlatan. Everywhere you turn there seems to be some kind of quack or confidence man catering to an eager audience: Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity have moved from pushing ill-informed opinion to flat-out conspiracy mongering; pickup artists sell “tried and true” methods for isolated young men to seduce women; and sophists pass off stale pedantries as dark and radical thought, selling millions of books in the process. In politics, too, our highest office is occupied by a man who was once aptly called a “carnival barker.”

What makes us so vulnerable to charlatans today? In part it’s the complexity of the modern world and the rate of technological and social change: Quackery provides what Saul Bellow once called a “five-cent synthesis,” boiling down the chaotic tangle of the age into simple nostrums.

The author refers us to a long-forgotten 1937 book titled “Die Macht des Charlatans,” or “The Power of the Charlatan.” It was a history of the quacks who roamed Europe in the Middle Ages and early modern period, written by an Austrian journalist  named De Francesco (but published, for obvious reasons given the date, in Switzerland).

Ms. De Francesco explains that the word “charlatan” comes from the Italian “ciarlatano,” itself probably related to the verb “ciarlare,” which means to babble or to go on incessantly without reflection. The original charlatans would babble on and on to mesmerize their audiences.

Babble without reflection. A perfect phrase to describe the noises that come out of President Trump’s mouth…

Nor was that the only parallel to be drawn. The book described the “often elaborate” shows mounted by Medieval and Renaissance mountebanks, with musicians, clowns and even performing animals. ( Presumably, too early for cat videos..)

Ms. De Francesco observes that this was the beginning of the mass communication techniques perfected by the public relations and advertising industries.

Crucially, the charlatan provides palliatives for a confused public. These nostrums can be either literal pills or phony ideas, for as Ms. De Francesco notes, “a quack is a quack — whether he sells opinions or elixirs.” Frequently they sell both. See for example Alex Jones, one of the most popular charlatans of the present age. He peddles bizarre conspiracy theories, including that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax, but also his own line of snake oil in the form of dubious dietary supplements.

Bottom line: when reality bites, entertainment that distracts you, easily grasped “explanations” for your predicament– and especially some “other” to blame for your problems– will ease your discomfort. In Roman times, it was bread and circuses. 

Today it’s Fox News….


  1. “Bottom line: when reality bites, entertainment that distracts you, easily grasped “explanations” for your predicament– and especially some “other” to blame for your problems– will ease your discomfort.”

    That is so true. The DNC ran a lousy candidate for president,that candidate ran a lousy campaign and the Democratic Party has been an impotent milksop for decades. Instead of facing reality what has the party propagated? Who is to blame? Russians.

    That’s not much of a platform. Of course,the Trump is Hitler meme is getting tired. Especially when Democrats have willfully chosen to give this “Hitler’ more spying powers. It also has become overtly redundant when this “Hitler” is given a larger defense budget by Democratic Party members that we are supposed to support in the name of party unity. If Trump is Hitler,and Joe Donnelly supports Trumpian agendas,then why am I being asked to vote for Donnelly in order to cut Trump (Hitler) off at the knees?

    Snake oil and circus’ indeed.

  2. Well played, William!

    Actually, the politician ARE the charlatans – both sides of the aisle. Fox News and MSNBC are just the tools used to divide and conquer. As the sociologist professor pointed out yesterday, 90% is greater than 10%. Therefore, those in power must keep the 90% distracted and fighting against each other. When there are only two political parties, this is rather easy.

    Why do both parties sign laws making it harder for the formation of newer parties?

    Why has the DNC abandoned Main Street for Wall Street?

    The government (politicians) are the obstructive forces today. They’ve sold out to the King’s and are used to distract the common people. Most of the crap peddled is televised. 😉

    The comment, “Just Vote!” works if you live in a democracy or representative republic. We don’t have either and it’s why many people have stopped voting. “No matter how we vote, nothing changes.”

    Once again, it’s a systemic crisis.

  3. So (William and Todd) in November, is it better to not vote at all rather than vote for someone who is not in the Trump camp? Otherwise, I can’t disagree with your comments. As far as Joe Donnelly is concerned, would you actually vote for Mike Braun?

  4. “As far as Joe Donnelly is concerned, would you actually vote for Mike Braun?’

    The both of them can go to hell. I will not vote for either one. It’s incumbent upon the party to bring me a candidate I can vote for and support. If not,what’s the point? Plus,if Trump is Hitler and Donnelly supports Trump….Why should I in a convoluted manner support Hitler simply because of “brand” loyalty? Unyielding fealty for “brand” loyalty is as bit authoritarian as being an automaton/brownshirt,no?

  5. daleb; thank you, it appears this will be “one of those days” on the blog with much discussion and differences of opinion from within our little “family”.

    “From itinerant peddlers selling snake oil to today’s more sophisticated propagandists selling political nostrums, there have always been hucksters preying on our very human yearning for simple solutions for what ails us.”

    The solution to “vote out the Republicans” sounds like a simple solution but…we need a much fuller awareness of the facts to get the public to understand the importance of this before any minds will be changed within the staunch Republican element in this country. I am going to quote from Vernon’s book the fact regarding the approval rating of Congress and election results in November 2017 which scared the hell out of me; “Congress, meanwhile, has an approval rating that’s down to close friends, family and staff at 13%. In spite of that low number, over 90% of Congressional incumbents were returned to office.” The strength of the Republican party lies with Congress who holds the power as given to them by the Constitution and they are abusing that power to increase their own self-interest. We have the power to change the power brokers in Congress; but only if we use that power by voting in November.

  6. Lets not forget the power of right wing hate radio. Hours and hours of it a day. Convincing working men in trucks that THEY are victims and the OTHER caused it.

  7. Oh, let’s put Todd and William on the ballot and see all our problems solved. We’ll see an active, responsible media, a controlled military budget and honest, forthright nostrums from them both that will keep us all happy, healthy and wise. Sure. But since nobody will have to vote anymore, who cares what they say or do?

    This phrase says much: “and sophists pass off stale pedantries as dark and radical thought, selling millions of books in the process.” From direct experience, I can tell you that publishers do NOT even read manuscripts from authors who have a small or non-existant “platform”. That means that the author has to have some sort of notoriety BEFORE they will even look at any manuscript. The author has to be an elected official, a previously known “authority” on something, a TV personality, a war hero or have landed a plane on a river. These so-called “sophists” have made themselves into somebody, who, if they can sell a minimum of 10,000 copies, is already being classified as credible.

    So, maybe, it’s those who make stuff up to sound important who buy the B.S. and those books.

    William and Todd for public office! Then, maybe, 10,000 people will buy their books.

  8. You may consider yourself ‘conservative’ but what is more, Ms. Kennedy, is that you are first and foremost; human and sentient. BANG ON! you put into a very concise form the explanation I have been searching for to explain the situation we are in through example. Nicely composed and dead on. I am fighting with a though that crossed my mind last eve; it concerned how easy it is to program the human being to respond. And how at this time I am seeing myself and other human beings responding to programming through a multitude of media and it isn’t good programming. Normalizing Fascism is not good. The problem is of course; the programming! So in order to correspond or inform and dialogue – me need open objective media. And there in is a catch 22. (P.S. I am this morning reading articles claiming the military is full on in back of trump and his internment camps. Sheila, one human to another; this fascist shi(f)t has to be stopped!)
    Thank you, for allowing voice.

  9. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

    “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    ― H.L. Mencken
    William and Todd great comments. Last few days here the Hitler Meter has been in the
    “Red Zone” one dire predication or comparison after another to Hitler.

    The Strategy of the Corporate-Democratic-Establishment Party since the 2016 has been to attack Trump (Agent Orange) one way or another. OK, Agent Orange is a big target. The Democratic Party had a chance to accept defeat and re-organize. Bernie Sanders a complete outsider nearly won the Democratic Primary, because he had a platform and a Progressive Agenda.

    I constantly receive junk mail from Joe Donnelly. There is nothing Progressive about Donnelly’s positions at all. What is he for??? Well Donnelly voted for Gorusch, Pompeo and Gina “Mommy Dearest” Haspel. Who would Mike Braun have voted for with these same choices???

    The so called News Networks CNN, MSDNC and FOX sell 24/7/365 their own versions of Snake Oil. It should be totally clear by now their purpose for existence is not to provide facts as such, but to spin their stories like a whirling dervish to provide you with the result you want to hear.

  10. One way to classify humans ( which is required to study them) is between problem solvers and naysayers. All charlatans are naysayers. That is the default condition for humans for it’s the easiest position to assume and it requires no preparatation and very little thinking. Of source it’s also the source of stasis in the face of problems.

    Charlatanism is predatory naysaying however that’s typically offering the first and only cure for your problem but all charalatans know what they are selling is not a cure for anything, but an illusion. They peddle placebos.

    I don’t know if there are more charlatans per person today than yesterday, they are fertilized by business and politics and often religion so there may be, but they are more effective because their predecessors sold us decades ago that it’s essential that each of us to never be more than an arm’s length away from a charlatonian outlet called “entertainment”. Big screens, little screens, color screens, audio the whole technology of creating illusions perfected to a faretheewell.

    Here’s the problem. Charlatans are always more complelling than problem solvers because we find easy so much more attractive than hard. We love easy, everyone of us.

    We are facing no easy problems to solve. There are no perfect solutions. There is risk all over the place.

    We need to give up looking to entertainment for solutions. We need to replace charlatans with heroes. We need to study and prepare and condition ourselves for a charalatan free world of reality not illusion. It will be hard and there are many ways to fail but only a few to succeed.

    This is World War III and we need to decide between comfort and huge risk.

    (BTW, thanks JoAnne for your final post of yesterday. Well thought out, well put, and apropos to today’s discussion before we knew what it was to be about.)

  11. Anybody in Indiana who chooses not to vote in the Senate election because Joe Donnelly is a weak-spined Democrat in name only is choosing this: they are OK with the Senate staying in Republican hands; they are OK with the current administration forcing through court appointments at all levels; they are OK with a senate that will confirm any executive appointments regardless of competence or ethics; they are OK with having no effective check on the executive power of this administration. I have no love for Joe Donnelly; however I know that many of his actions this year are strategic political choices that are designed to display him as a “moderate” candidate – which is after all the only kind of Democrat who can win in Indiana. Would he vote differently if he was part of a Senate majority? I can only hope so. Maybe others prefer to keep themselves untainted by simply avoiding voting in this race. From my perspective, that choice is not an abstention, but a complicity in allowing this vulnerable seat to move from namby-pamby hands into right-wing-crazy hands. Just like the people who chose not to vote in 2016 are responsible for the mess we are in right now.

  12. Charlatans existed before the Middle Ages and are still with us today in a more aggravated form considering the ease of electronic and other means of communication. They are not all politicians; some of the pill and car ads we are called upon to endure are enough to make one physically ill. Commercial charlatans do your thinking for you, make your choices and include the cost of advertising of the goods and services you buy (which they deduct as “a cost of doing business” so that you and even other taxpayers who do not buy their goods and services help pay for their cost of selling but sans countervailing costs of buying (interest etc., usually not deductible). The mercantile system is rigged in favor of sellers – always has been.

    As to those among us who will not vote for a candidate because he or she does not perfectly match their wish list, they are likely voting for someone worse by not voting at all. They have not, as Churchill noted, considered the alternative. So the Democratic Party did not give them the perfect candidate according to their wishes, so? They would withhold their support so that a Trump supporter can be enabled to aid and abet the virtual coup Trump is in the process of pulling in plain view? With the end of democracy, it won’t matter what voters think because there is no voting in a dictatorship, as Republicans will discover to their dismay unless this budding authoritarian is stopped. The empowered charlatan-in-chief will be making all decisions for everyone irrespective of their old views as Republicans and Democrats on gender, race, tax and budget policy etc.

    I urge all who would withhold their vote for a flawed candidate to rethink their position and consider the alternative, i.e., a vote for a Trump enabler.

  13. VT:”William and Todd for public office! Then, maybe, 10,000 people will buy their books.”

    Yes,my book will be titled,

    Snake Oil; How The Public Must Fight The Influence of Oligarchs and Billionaires Upon Our Democracy!

    First Chapter: Why We Must Stop Facilitating Subsidies To Business and Billionaires!

    The book will be available at Amazon. Because nothing epitomizes the McResistance than purchasing a book condemning business subsidies to billionaires than purchasing it through Amazon Dot Com!

    My Next Book;

    Is It A Bug Or A Feature? How The Resistance Was Compromised Before It Ever Came To Fruition! And How That Compromise Made Punky Meadows Cry!

  14. “I urge all who would withhold their vote for a flawed candidate to rethink their position and consider the alternative, i.e., a vote for a Trump enabler.”

    Gerald; those are wise words, a message so many of us tried to get across to voters before November 8, 2016 but which passed over their heads or through empty minds. Dare we hope any lessons were learned by even a percentage of those who voted for Stein or Johnson or wrote in Bernie’s name? The intelligence level and awareness of our current reality of those of us on this blog seems high till they return to pointing out the warts on Democratic candidates and the party in general and then I rethink my opinion and wonder…

  15. Yes,we must ignore the warts…..Ignore the warts……Ignore the warts of the Democratic Party!

    Be SMART! Ignore the warts!!!

    Vote For And Support Joe Donnelly!

    Viva Le Resistance!!!

Comments are closed.